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‘Resident Alien,’ Representation, and Redefining a Genre

There is no shortage of strange happenings in the quaint mountain town of Patience, Colorado. Here, everyone knows everyone, and everyone has a story to tell. From the confusing local legend of the fifty-nine miners who risked their lives to save one of their fellow men only for all sixty miners to perish to the mayor descended from the town’s founding fathers to their very own former Olympic hero, Patience has it all. And that also includes a real live alien living among its citizens, as is the case in SyFy’s 2021 Resident Alien series. 

Set in a small, sleepy town bordering a Native American reservation, Resident Alien stars Alan Tudyk as “Harry Vanderspiegle” – or, more accurately, as an alien who crash-landed near Patience and killed the real Dr. Harry Vanderspiegle, a reclusive doctor who lived in a secluded cabin on the outskirts of town, before taking on his form. When the town’s other doctor is murdered, Sheriff Mike (Corey Reynolds) and Deputy Liv (Elizabeth Bowen) ask Harry to fill in. The alien agrees, setting into motion the events of the series. 

In his role as the temporary town doctor, Harry meets the rest of the townsfolk who serve as Resident Alien‘s colorful cast of characters: D’Arcy (Alice Wetterlund), who works at the local pub; the mayor of the town, Ben (Levi Fiehler), and Max (Judah Prehn), his young son (who, hilariously, turns out to be one of the few people in the world who can see Harry’s true form); Asta Twelvetrees (Sara Tomko), head nurse at the local clinic where Harry finds himself working; and Asta’s adoptive father, Dan (Gary Farmer), who owns and operates the locally beloved Joe’s Diner. 

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Gary Farmer as Dan Twelvetrees & Sara Tomko as Asta Twelvetrees in Resident Alien (COURTESY: SYFY)

Harry and Asta quickly become Resident Alien‘s central focus. They both shine as they lend their remarkable comedy and chemistry to the show’s funny, yet heartfelt storytelling formula. The two strike up an unlikely and unexpected friendship working together at the clinic and assisting in investigating the murder that occurred there. We also learn that Harry’s mission from his home planet was to obliterate all of humanity on earth. He failed when he crash-landed in the nearby mountains, but he’s been searching for the alien technology he lost in the crash, and does intend to carry out his mission – eventually. 

At first, Harry is uninterested in engaging with the humans around him, Asta included. However, as Harry works in the clinic with Asta; eats at Joe’s Diner; meets other townsfolk; and attempts to befriend Max before the boy exposes his true identity, Harry’s perspective shifts. Much to his surprise (and horror), he becomes more human – and even starts to wonder if humanity might actually be worth saving. 

On the surface, the Resident Alien series is more or less a fun, comedic twist on a basic sci-fi plot: a member of another species comes to Earth, befriends humans, and ultimately decides that humanity is more worthy than first believed. In this sense, it’s another modern adaptation of an older story that plays well with its genre tropes because it both understands and respects them. Upon closer examination, though, a handful of key differences make Resident Alien more relevant, worthy, and important as a piece of media that showcases an under-, often misrepresented, and marginalized group in an unlikely genre. The show succeeds in casually and easily representing a number of underrepresented groups in various characters and casting, but it shines in its consistent representation of Native Americans as both main and side characters. 

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Alan Tudyk as “The Alien” and Sara Tomko as Asta Twelvetrees in Resident Alien (COURTESY: SYFY)

Historically, Native American representation in mainstream media has been off-color at best and haunting at worst. Too often, it’s meant gross caricatures of Indigenous peoples, from children’s media (such as Disney’s Pochahontas) to textbooks and documentaries. Native imagery has adorned pro sports uniforms and supermarket packaging and become generally intertwined with daily American life to the general detriment of Native life and culture.

But Resident Alien, in line with other recent standout shows like Reservation Dogs, Rutherford Falls, and Dark Winds, successfully flips the script. Asta and Dan are members of the Ute Native American tribe, among the Great Basin’s indigenous peoples. These peoples occupied the land in much of present-day Utah and Colorado for centuries before being colonized by European settlers. Today, the Utes maintain a population estimated between 4,800 and 10,000 people.

Through Asta, Dan, and a handful of successfully woven side characters, Resident Alien offers a fully formed look at life on and around a modern Native American reservation. These characters include Kayla (Sarah Podemski), Asta’s cousin and a successful lawyer; D’Arcy’s off-and-on boyfriend, the Native archaeologist Elliot (Justin Rain); and Asta’s estranged daughter, Jay (portrayed masterfully by nonbinary Native and actor Kaylayla Raine). With casual references to Native traditions and a timely and relevant commentary on the all-too-common issue of “development” on sacred Native land, Resident Alien doesn’t shy away from accurate representations of this still-marginalized group. 

It’s also vital to note that while Harry lives in the body of a white man, he is not actually a white man. He’s a member of a species that doesn’t exist on Earth – and humans generally view literal alien species as savage, beastly, and threatening. There is an inherent otherness to Harry’s existence that grants him a nuanced connection to Asta and her Indigenous family, one he fails to achieve with many of Resident Alien‘s other human characters. 

Harry arrives on Earth with little knowledge of the human race. He teaches himself to speak and move like a human, albeit awkwardly, and ends up with something that (barely) passes for a human man. While Harry learns how to speak English from watching television, and his above-human intelligence allows him to serve as an effective doctor, the missing piece is his connection to human culture and priorities. He lacks an innate understanding of humanity, often insisting that humans are unintelligent or too emotional. 

It’s no accident that this only begins to change as he grows closer to Asta. For the most part, Harry rejects human beliefs and practices. After all, he is primarily on Earth to destroy humans and holds a deep, innate disposition against humanity as a whole. With Asta as his closest friend on Earth, Harry begins to see humanity through her eyes. When he is exposed to the culture and traditions of Asta’s family and people, things begin to change for Harry. 

In the Resident Alien Season 1 episode “Birds of a Feather,” we see the first signs of Harry hesitating to complete his mission. In the opening sequence, after dreaming of a world where he’s completed mission, Harry wakes up startled and disturbed. Later, while attending a family gathering with Asta and Dan on the Southern Ute Reservation, it first occurs to Harry that there is a basic human need to connect to others. The revelation is notable because Harry has encountered this premise with plenty of other people during his time in Patience, but it isn’t until he witnesses it in the form of Asta’s family and their particular dynamic that human connectivity begins to make any sense to him. Though still new in his human form, Harry manages to connect with members of Asta’s family and experiences feelings that he can’t identify – he finds himself included and accepted by these humans as he eats with them, joins a game of basketball, and observes how they interact with each another.

The result is probably the first time Harry has felt at home among human beings. And it begins a critical development for Harry, not only in his relationship with Asta but also in his relationship with the world around him. He begins experiencing for the first time the very human feelings of homesickness and belonging – a point made even more critical by the fact that it happens on Harry’s first visit to the Ute reservation.

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Tommy Pico as Drew; Gary Farmer as Dan; Sara Tomko as Asta; Alan Tudyk as Harry; and Sarah Podemski as Kayla in Resident Alien (COURTESY: SYFY)

We see the same point picked up again and magnified in the Resident Alien Season 2 episode “Radio Harry,” which follows Harry’s return to the reservation. In a voiceover, while Asta hugs her relatives and assorted family members welcome Harry, he tells us, “I like being on the reservation. It feels comfortable. There is a warmth to it. They must like it, too, since they’re always together.” By this point in Harry’s human experience, he’s grown much closer to both Asta and Dan (who are also the only humans aware of Harry’s true identity). This is reflected not only in Harry’s direct interactions with them but also in how he interacts with everyone else around him. While he still doesn’t understand humans or many of their habits, Harry does understand the distinction between life in Patience and life on the reservation, and it’s no accident that Asta, Dan, and their extended family are the people Harry is most human with.

Then, when Harry is camping out with Asta, Dan, and two of their cousins, he has a vital realization in the middle a timely conversation about climate change around the campfire. Asta and her family discuss the issue from a Native perspective and come to the grim conclusion that while Native people do try to protect the planet, there’s only so much they can do without the global population’s awareness and action. It’s here that Harry begins to understand the complexity of the issue: humans are not all equally responsible for the destruction of the planet. 

At Asta’s family home, Harry is asked to help deliver the baby of one of her family members. In a touching and heartfelt scene, Harry assists with the birth with the community and emotional support of Asta’s family. After the birth, Dan explains what happens next to Drew, a family member from the city visiting the reservation for the first time in years. “We’re gonna smudge the umbilical cord. Wrap it in this buckskin. Keep it in a cedar box; put it in the house,” he says. Then, opening another window into Native culture, Dan adds, “We do this to keep the kid from wandering too far…or for too long.”

Meanwhile, Harry stands back and considers how different this process is from that of his own species, which is emotionally detached from its babies. The episodes concludes with Harry’s own conclusion: “I discovered,” he says, “that some humans are taught how precious the earth is. It is not enough to save them. But if they can’t, who will?” 

“Radio Harry” is a turning point in Harry’s view of earth and humanity. His time with Asta has taught him that, contrary to what Harry’s people have always believed, humans are not a uniformly corrupt detriment to Earth’s habitability. Native peoples, like the Utes, have a much different approach to the planet; when Harry is exposed to it, he becomes more human himself. And ultimately, Harry does try to align himself with Asta, abandoning his original mission. 

Harry’s choice marks the Resident Alien‘s deviation from the standard science fiction formula. Its inclusive perspective shifts the landscape of both the genre and Native American representation. So often, Native characters and images are presented to us as dehumanized or lesser-than, as savages or broken societies (complete with white savior elements). The refreshing change that Resident Alien offers is Native characters, traditions, and lives capable of convincing Harry that humans are more, not less, than what he first sees. Furthermore, Harry’s discovery of the human world enables us to discover something: a more complete, accurate, and thorough representation of Native people, as well as a future where television has room for depictions of long-misrepresented cultures in every genre.

Although Resident Alien has not yet reached its final conclusion, it already has much to offer. The show’s study of humanity in all its forms is equal parts hilarious and heartfelt. Its representation is genuine and honest, as is its commentary on the social issues of the present. Perhaps most importantly, Resident Alien is a lesson in deep respect and unbridled acceptance – here on earth and all over the universe. 

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